Home > Marathon, Running > Zola Budd, redux.. 30 years on.

Zola Budd, redux.. 30 years on.

zola_buddZola Budd was my first crush from the world of international sport. Ok, technically speaking, John McEnroe came before her, but let’s put that one down as an obsession and not a crush (by then, I was quite sure of my sexual orientation).

If you’re in your forties or older, her name will probably ring a familiar bell. Zola Budd’s anticipated clash with American Mary Decker in the women’s 3000m was the most hyped up contest during the build up to the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984.

As personalities, they were very different. Mary Decker, reigning world champion and regarded as the greatest distance runner of the time, was America’s darling and hometown favourite. She had to miss the Moscow games in 1980 due to the cold-war caused boycott, and an entire nation desperately wanted her to win her deserved Olympic gold medal this time. Zola was the shy, almost waif-like 18 year old barefoot running prodigy from South Africa, who had been hastily (and controversially) granted British citizenship to enable her to compete in the Olympics – South Africa was barred from all international sport those days because of the apartheid regime.

The race took place on a summer day in August, 1984 – thirty years ago, almost to the week. As it happened, it did live up to all the pre-event billing, but in a different sort of way. A New York Times article described what happened in a recap piece:

Before a screaming crowd of 85,149 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Miss Decker led for more than four laps of the 7 1/2-lap race. Then, on a turn, Miss Budd edgedmd
a foot or so ahead on the outside. They bumped for a moment, which happens often in this sport. Seconds later, they made contact again, and Miss Decker and her hopes went sprawling on the ground.

At a post-race news conference, a teary Decker declared, “I hold Budd responsible for what happened. I didn’t do anything wrong.”  Budd, initially disqualified from the race, was later reinstated to her seventh-place finish.  

Indeed, the image of an inconsolably weeping Mary Decker being carried out from the stadium by her husband, was one among the most enduring images from that Olympics.

Young readers may not be able to relate to this, but those were the days of no internet, no YouTube and a grand total of one (government owned) channel on TV. So watching endless replays at will wasn’t an option for us. Given the huge press that the incident generated, I did manage to see clips from the race a couple of times later on news bulletins and the like. In the throes of my teenage crush, I was of course, firmly convinced that Zola was not at fault. After an investigation, the authorities came to the same conclusion.
zb_mdBy all accounts, the incident also cost Zola Budd a possible Olympic winning finish. The stadium erupted with boos immediately after Decker fell down, Zola’s eyes welled up with tears, and she faded away in the race from then on. She said later that she did not want to win after what happened, fearing the expected hostile reaction from an emotional home crowd. She also maintained that she never saw footage of the race again.



Budd then trained to compete in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. But just before the event, she was engulfed in controversy again, when African nations alleged that she had competed in an event in South Africa. Despite her claim that she had merely attended the event as a spectator, the Athletics Federation suspended her from the Olympic event. She did make an appearance in the 1992 games, this time representing her home country, which by now had been reinstated into the sporting fraternity after Nelson Mandela became President. However, illness hampered her performance, and she never won an Olympic medal in her running career.

After three decades, I read about Zola Budd in the news recently, and as you may have guessed, it was about another controversy at a running event. The Comrades marathon is one of the toughest ultra-marathon events in the world. Participants have to complete a distance of about 90km in under 12 hours, plus a number of timing cut-off points along the route, each of which runners must reach by a prescribed time, or be forced to retire from the race.


Zola Budd (now Zola Pieterse), age 48, finished the 2014 Comrades in 6 hours, 55 minutes. She placed 7th overall and first in her age category, earning her a gold medal. She was however later stripped of her title following accusations that she did not display the required age category tag while running. As of now, Budd has challenged the decision, and is contemplating legal redress. In an interview, she said, “My whole athletics career has been plagued by politics and interference from administrators who are selective and do not apply the rules consistently.”

I’ve can’t but help wonder as to how one dramatic event sometimes alters the course for the rest of one’s life. While Zola Budd did seem to move on from 1984 and apparently made her peace with life, it’s funny that controversy somehow manages to rear its head in her life every now and then.

What if, I think.. what if there was no collision that August day, and Zola Budd had actually gone on to win the race that day. How would her life have turned out then..

But then, C’est la vie, I guess.

Here’s the video of the 1984 race. The pivotal moment comes after the half way point in the clip.









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